Nutrient stewardship efforts in the U.S. currently focus on a few very specific geographic regions of the country.
The now-settled Des Moines Water Works case put Iowa’s issues with nitrogen leaching through tile drainage front and center, while 2014’s wayward floating algal bloom that found its way into the Ohio city of Toledo’s municipal water intake shined a light on phosphorus run-off in that region.
That’s not to mention the ongoing hypoxia fights at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf and in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
In the interest of this article, we’ll focus exclusively on the Iowa and Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB) regions, where recent farming operations have borne the brunt of negative mainstream media coverage.
4R Plus Launched
In late February a group of ag and conservation stakeholders (CF Industries and Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service [NRCS] being just two of the 30-plus involved) decided an education and outreach push was needed around the 4R nutrient stewardship program in the Hawkeye State. Enter the 4R Plus Nutrient and Conservation Stewardship Program.
“There’s a great piece (in the program) to help educate the retailers on the 4Rs. And we get that, if you’re a crop advisor in this business, you’re likely already aware of the 4Rs. But sometimes there’s new information we need to share, so it fits hand-in-hand,” Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, Nutrient Strategy Manager-North America Agriculture, The Nature Conservancy, says.
Vollmer-Sanders, stationed in Angola, IN, in the heart of the WLEB, also works on nutrient stewardship issues in Iowa and around the country. She says the new program can provide a spark for service providers looking to start that conversation with grower-customers around nutrient stewardship on their lands.
“Implementing the 4Rs alone isn’t really going to make your yields the best they can be, and it’s not going to keep all nutrients from moving to the streams,” she says. “Growers and their consultants have also got to think about the health of that soil and if there are places where soil is leaving through erosion, or the soil is degrading because the biology is shifting. Maybe the microbes aren’t happy. I think that’s where the retailer that knows the soil and knows the fertilizer can really help the grower kick up their farm management.”
Recent research by The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) shows that growers are increasingly having these conversations around conservation practices with the ag service provider. You can bet the first question they want to know is, “How much?” As in, how much is this going to cost me?
“I think pretty much every ag retailer out there hosts a field day, whether they have plots looking at different seed varieties or plots looking at different agronomic advice,” Vollmer-Sanders says. “That is a great way for those retailers to demonstrate to the farmer, ‘Hey, here’s maybe a different way to put your fertilizer on.’ Or, ‘We added a stabilizer this year, here’s why, and here’s what it cost.’”
Status of Split Applications
There’s been a concerted effort from nearly all parties in agriculture to try and diminish the amount of fall fertilizer application that goes on. Those efforts, generally speaking, have moved the needle, with more talk of spring, or split, application and spoon-feeding nutrients ubiquitous among industry types.
Still, the very way that we do business in agriculture — wanting to get that seed in the ground as soon as possible in order to avoid yield losses — makes across-the-board spring application somewhat of a pipe dream.
“I understand why guys do it, and I understand why the industry has kind of moved in that direction,” Vollmer-Sanders says of fall application. “I struggle with some of the data, though, when I see how much nitrogen is left for the spring crop when I put on, say, 100 pounds in the fall. There’s just not that much left for starter.”
In her region Vollmer-Sanders sees a glimmer of hope. Although a recent nationwide TFI survey showed that shockingly around 70% of growers are somehow still unaware of 4R nutrient stewardship, she believes that number would be much lower if she surveyed many of the growers they work with in the WLEB.
“I’m not sure the exact numbers from the last year or two on cover crops, but I see a lot of adoption in the WLEB,” she says. “What I am hoping happens is that when someone puts on their MAP or DAP and incorporates it, they are also putting out a cover crop. But every year it’s a little bit different. Last year was a wet fall, so cover crops didn’t really get put on to the level that everybody had hoped.”
At the center of all this, as Vollmer-Sanders again confirms, is the ag service provider.
“The retailer is probably in the best position to say, ‘You know this is a wet year, so this product probably won’t work so well,’ or vice-versa depending on whatever the practice is,” she says. “They have a lot of opportunity to help showcase a lot of the different conservation practices to the grower.”